Hackers of the highest water – exploring innovation in Africa

January 2nd, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on October 10, 2013

On the evening of September 24th, with only a day remaining in his crowdfunding campaign, Joshua Ellis met and then exceeded his $10,000 goal. Thanks to the support of nearly two hundred backers, Joshua will spend a month traveling across sub-Saharan Africa, where he’ll pen a travelogue (to be developed into a book upon his return) about the technological ingenuity of home-grown innovators throughout the region.

So out of curiosity, what do the contents of an African tech-writing trip bag look like? What hardware and gear will you be bringing along for the journey?

I’ll be taking a Panasonic Lumix GX1 camera, which one of my backers is sending me — it’s small, light and easy to carry. Apparently theft is a really big issue in some of the places I’m going, so I’m probably going to take a crappy little netbook to write on. I’ll be backing everything up onto SD cards which I keep in my pocket, and uploading it to the cloud whenever I have Net access. Also a paper notebook, a cheap Android phone with local SIM card, a solar charger, and a big-ass knife.

How abundant are internet cafes (or other places offering shared internet access) along your route? Any guesses as to how frequently you’ll be able to post travelogue entries or otherwise communicate with backers?

I don’t actually know. Probably pretty widespread in Nairobi and Lagos, elsewhere I’m not sure. I’m hoping to use my phone to tether and send stuff that way, but I’m not sure if I can even get data plans where I’ll be. I’m researching that now.

While a handful of the locations you’ve outlined are clustered together, there’s a fair amount of land to cross, too. How do you plan to travel between Nigeria and Kenya?

Funny story: originally, I was gonna try and do it over land. It’s almost 2400 miles, but I looked at Google Maps and it said it was a 50 hour drive. Sounds reasonable, right?

Turns out that there are two roads — and I’m using that word “roads” in the most conceptual sense — that can get you from Lagos to Nairobi. One of them runs through the middle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through the areas where the internal fighting has been most fierce. The other runs way north, through Darfur. So not comfy, mellow road trip driving.

Then I discovered that, basically, nobody will rent you a car for that trip. They’ll sell you one. Because they know that, one way or another, you’re not coming back. And the actual travel time is probably closer to six weeks, because much of the “road” is basically paths through the jungle. You will probably lose your car. You will pay thousands of dollars in bribes along the way at borders. You will probably die in one astonishing way or another.

So I’m flying.

Have you set up any specific encounters or agenda items yet, or are you planning to wing it and take advantage of opportunities as they arise?

A bit of both. I’m going to try and set up meetings with startup kids and tech people in each place I’m going, but I also rely a lot on serendipity, which has never failed me. I’m good at figuring out what’s interesting around me.

If there’s one thing the press is good at, it’s over-illuminating dangers to the degree that any place can look like a war zone. With that said, some parts of Africa are actually legitimate war zones. Now that the project is underway, are there any planned destinations that you’re particularly wary of?

Christ, yes: all of them. I was counting on Nairobi being the safest place I was going to be, until those al-Shabaab assholes decided to run amok in that mall and announce that foreigners in Kenya were “fair game” for targeting, which they did the day after the campaign tipped over the goal. And there are definitely some al-Qaida dudes in Lagos as well. Rwanda’s generally safe, except when it’s not. Thanks to America’s imbecilic War on Scary Brown People, it’s dangerous to go anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a Starbucks on every corner. It’s difficult for me to realistically evaluate the danger from here. I know what the State Department travel advisories say for the places I’m going, which is basically “What are you, an idiot?”

So I’m more than a little nervous. I don’t exactly blend in, right? I’m not a small target. I look like a giant aging record store clerk. I’m tattooed and pierced. Plus, let’s face it, it’s not like I’m Jason Bourne. Thanks to a car accident twenty years ago, my knees are absolutely shot, and I’m completely out of shape. My only particular skill is an ability to generate an astonishing amount of chaos and physical mayhem on command. So if somebody tries to jack me I’ll just start screaming and throwing things and hope somebody comes to my rescue.

Of course, after all my worrying, I’ll probably show up and it’ll be like a goddamn Paul Simon video — nice people, beautiful scenery, a certain amount of wry wordplay. That’s what I’m fervently hoping. But I’d rather be overly cautious than overly dead.

Your mother was an ardent supporter of the campaign, even going so far as to offer home-cooked meals to local backers, and you’ve spoken before on your travels as a child. Has she been involved in the planning, and are the risks of the project a concern for her?

She was so happy when I called her after the campaign reached 100% funding that she was crying. She hasn’t really been involved in the planning, other than offering meals to local backers, which I thought was very sweet of her. She’s definitely concerned for my safety, but I think she and my dad understand that this is a really important thing for me to do, both personally and professionally. She also knows, from thirty-five years of experience, that once I’ve committed to something, there’s no point in trying to change my mind.

And we’re a nomad family: my grandfather built oil refineries all around the world, from northern China to Venezuela to Saudi to Turkey, where I lived with him and my grandmother for a year as a kid. I’ve traveled overseas fairly extensively — mostly Western Europe, but also Egypt and Turkey.

My mom was the one who instilled in me a sense of wanderlust and a basic curiosity about the universe, because she’s an amazing woman. Mainly she’s just proud of me for pulling this off, and excited for me as I go out into the big world.

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas .vegas!

January 1st, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on September 19, 2013

If Dot Vegas, Inc has its way, Latvia’s top-level .lv domain will soon find itself in a bit of competition when it comes to representing Las Vegas on the Internet.

Founded by veterans of eNIC Corporation, the registry for the .cc top-level domain, the startup and .vegas proponent began preparations for an application to ICANN (the organization that governs Internet domain names) several years ago, but initial plans were hindered by delays and a competing proposal.

Greenspun Corporation, operator of lasvegas.com and vegas.com and supported by Clark County, insisted that they should be the ones to herald the new TLD, arguing that the company was in a stronger position and could provide better terms (including a revenue agreement with the County), but Mayor Oscar Goodman and the City of Las Vegas balked, instead choosing to sign with newcomer Dot Vegas, Inc.

The Dot Vegas proposal also garnered support from the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, the City of North Las Vegas, and the Nevada Development Authority.

With the endorsement of the city in hand (an ICANN requirement), Dot Vegas submitted its application. Last month, after internal deliberation and a reclassification from a protected geographic TLD to a generic TLD (meaning anyone worldwide can register a domain with the .vegas extension), it was announced that the .vegas application had passed ICANN’s initial evaluation, and if all goes as planned, the new TLD will be live next year.

I spoke with Dustin Trevino, CFO of Dot Vegas, Inc, about the history of the project and the company’s plans for the new TLD.

Why .vegas?

One of the areas we thought would be popular in the new TLD program would be geographic /city names. Las Vegas has two names. To those that that live here, it is Las Vegas. To those that visit it is known as Vegas. Our rational was simple, if forty million annual visitors and hundreds of millions more around the world know it as Vegas, who were we to argue. The City made it clear that they wanted the .vegas tld to be a worldwide tld, so choosing .vegas over .lasvegas was easy.

Plus, .vegas has fewer characters than .lasvegas.

The Dot Vegas, Inc. relationship with the city goes back to 2008-2009. Has it been a continuous effort to establish the TLD since then, or did the project stall and then recently revive?

The TLD application program was supposed to start in 2009 but delays within ICANN prevented that from happening. During this time we continued to work toward preparing and submitting our application, and at no time did we go dark. While it has taken us longer than anticipated to get to the submission stage, we have kept ourselves busy both operationally and politically.

What are the terms of the revenue share between the city and the company?

The city receives 10% of the gross revenue or $0.75 per domain name, whichever is greater.

Will the City of Las Vegas and/or Dot Vegas gain possession of any particular .vegas domain names once the new TLD is live?

As part of the agreement with the city, Dot Vegas Inc will withhold certain domain names that are in the interest of the city to protect, names such as mayor.vegas and citycouncil.vegas, etc.

How will the initial land rush for popular domain names be handled at launch? Will it be first come first served, or are there plans for divvying out the more enticing names?

Since we can’t directly sell domains to end users, the land rush will be handled by registrars/resellers like Godaddy, Network Solutions and others. However, there will be an auction component for the more desirable names. This will be handled by specialized companies such as pool.com and/or Sedo.

Are other entities (such as the County, etc) involved in the program, or is it strictly between the City of Las Vegas and Dot Vegas?

In terms of a revenue share it’s only the city. However, we have talked to the Chamber of Commerce and plan on others participating in some way.

Has per-domain pricing been announced, and if not, is there an estimated range that it may fall into?

With 1,400 new top level domains coming out over the next few years the pricing landscape could change dramatically. Today, we are researching pricing options. Of course, to get an accurate read on pricing we need to talk to resellers as well as end users, so this is taking us a little longer than we had expected. Internally we have discussed everything from $9.95 to $99.95 per year for an average domain name, though nothing has been agreed upon.

Yet don’t forget that we expect many of the premium names to go for seven figures. Poker.vegas comes to mind, as well as hotel(s).vegas, and there will be many more domain names that command five and six figure prices. These are scarce commodities and whoever owns them will control Internet traffic in a way that no one else can.

A Day at the Expo

October 7th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on September 5, 2013

“Hey, you went to the GameStop Expo? Did you get a copy of Madden 25? Some guy said that VIP badge-holders got Madden 25. He came in today to trade it in.”

“Uh, yes. No. We’re press. Same bag, different stuff inside.” I opened the drawstring bag-cum-backpack thing, revealing its contents. “Our bags were mostly publisher knickknacks and information about– hey, there’s a Skylander in there!”

Gamestop Expo 2013

Last weekend, video game retailer GameStop held its second public convention, a sort of baby Electronic Entertainment Expo bolted onto the company’s conference for store managers. While GameStop’s employee-only conferences are a yearly function (I attended one in 2007 as a developer, demoing Universe at War for Petroglyph/Sega), someone at corporate must’ve realized that, since publishers were already setting up extravagant booths to woo GameStop staff into supporting their titles, costs could be recouped by extending the show by a day and opening it to the public.

After a successful start in San Antonio, Texas (a quick flight from the company’s Dallas/Fort Worth HQ), 2013’s Expo was held here in Las Vegas at the Sands Convention Center. For a city known as a convention destination, we have surprisingly few shows related to the video game industry (and none open to the general public), so I’m hoping this year was successful enough that GameStop decides to stick around.

But whatever, that’s all background. Let’s talk about video game stuff!

While little breaking news was expected to come out of the expo (the press room reflected that, I think the most journalists we ever saw in the room at one time was four), the conference was one of the first opportunities for the public to actually handle the controllers of and play both Microsoft’s Xbox One (November, $499) and Sony’s Playstation 4 (November 15, $399) consoles. If the line extending out of the conference area and well into the hallways was any indication, the chance to touch new hardware is a powerful draw.

Microsoft and Sony, situated on opposite ends of the convention like boys and girls at a grade school dance, each operated expansive booths, beckoning the audience to come and play their games and to nevermind the menace on the other side of the hall. Between the two was a small sea of game publishers and a surprisingly large number of headphone manufacturers, none of which I’ll be covering as I’ve only got so much space to work with this week.

So how do the new consoles feel?

The Xbox One. After an early public relations stumble over how the company would be managing internet connectivity and the use of pre-owned games, Microsoft’s marketing engine appears to be back on track with the Xbox One, and a good number were on display and playable at the company’s booth. The consoles, positioned around a full size statue of the protagonist of the upcoming Ryse: Son of Rome, were hidden behind plexiglass, gamepads resting on stands during brief moments of inactivity. In the hands, the controller feels like a slightly more robust version of the widely-praised Xbox 360 controller, albeit with a much improved directional pad and a lighter overall feel. Full size arcade-style fighting sticks by Mad Catz were demonstrated, set to be released alongside Microsoft’s revival of the fighting game Killer Instinct.

The still capable and newly slimmed-down Xbox 360 was also on display, and may end up a solid alternative for new console buyers not looking to drop five hundred bucks on a gaming machine.

Gamestop Expo 2013

The Playstation 4. Okay, I’ll admit that I’ve never been a fan of the ubiquitous DualShock series of controllers featured on Sony consoles since the original Playstation. With the PS4, that’s changed. The controller may retain the name, but the new redesign has made it a pleasure to grasp and the controller fits perfectly in the hand. The twin analog sticks, perilously close together in previous iterations, are now spaced further apart (tested particularly well with the upcoming Octodad: Deadliest Catch), and the directional pad is just as well-built as ever. Unfortunately, none of the games I demoed offered an opportunity to use the capacitive touch pad.

Speaking of games, my favorite from the Sony booth was NOT a Playstation 4 launch title. Tearaway, a Playstation Vita game developed by Little Big Planet’s Media Molecule, will be one of the first AAA games to properly make use of the Vita’s touch controls without feeling like the result of a developer checking off boxes on a features bullet point list. Additionally, much like the Little Big Planet series, Tearaway is absolutely full of charm and clever design, and I expect it to be a system seller.

Oh, one little piece of news from the show: in a display of competitive love from both Sony and Microsoft, GameStop store managers (all 6,500 of ‘em) will each be receiving a free Playstation 4 and Xbox One, along with a handful of games for each, just in time for the holidays. I’m still waiting for the tech columnist console giveaway announcement, and I’ll let you all know the moment that comes through.

Beyond a Culture of Rage

October 5th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on August 22, 2013

In March of 2007, just days before a scheduled teaching workshop at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, developer and writer Kathy Sierra withdrew from the session. A prominent blogger and speaker, Sierra’s sudden cancellation came as the result of a flurry of online abuse, including death threats and images of a violent and sexual nature. These attacks prompted her to quit publishing online entirely.

Last month, after a slight modification to the stats of three rifles in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, John Vonderhaar, the game’s Design Director, received an incredible number of angry replies from outraged players, documented by Andy Kelly on gamerfury.tumblr.com, threatening everything from his death to the rape of his family.

Phil Fish, developer of Fez and known to many via Indie Game: The Movie and his outspoken attitude, posted the following message in July after a verbal altercation on Twitter:

“FEZ II is cancelled.
i am done.
i take the money and i run.
this is as much as i can stomach.
this is isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign.

you win.”

The post had over 1800 responses, the majority abusive.

Anita Sarkeesian, shortly after launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, found herself bombarded with misogynist and hateful messages, threats of rape, and crudely Photoshopped images of herself. She responded by documenting and sharing the abuse on her site, resulting in significant press coverage and a surge of support for her campaign.

This week, Jim Jannard, the founder of RED Digital Cinema and a frequent participant on enthusiast discussion forums, stepped down from his public role and announced that he’d no longer be posting online, stating “I have to say… they have gotten to me. I don’t need this. I don’t deserve this. Life is short and I am tired.”

The above examples are from my own industry, but there are plenty more out there if you look around.

Hell, the local online and tech community is no stranger to harassment – pick nearly any popular Review-Journal or Las Vegas Sun article and skim through the comments, the level of vitriol and anger within, often targeting the journalist, can be staggering. The Save the Huntridge campaign discussion group, managed by well-intentioned volunteers with no personal stakes in the project (save the restoration of a ill-used venue), was besieged and nearly derailed early on by acrimonious attackers, and don’t get me started about the abuse flung towards anyone who might have a finger in the Downtown Project pool.

Spewing anonymous bile isn’t a new thing, as anyone with access to a CB radio can attest, but the online audience is greater than any before. Every one of us, at one time or another, ends up a target. We brush it off, hit the block button and move on, the grief only a temporary encounter in our streams of neutral and (hopefully) positive engagements.

But some folks, through sheer will or happenstance, become known. Maybe they’ve designed a favorite game, written interesting words, or spoken at a conference. Maybe they’re a passionate local, investing themselves in the community. Maybe they’re just a kid on the sad end of a viral video or unfortunate photograph.

Suddenly, as if passing though a nebulous fame threshold, they become fair game and the abuse directed their way skyrockets. Some, like Anita Sarkeesian and John Vonderhaar, are thick skinned and ignore it or use it to their advantage. Others, like Kathy Sierra, Jim Jannard, or even the acerbic Phil Fish, are affected personally and deeply by the malice directed their way. Sometimes they recoil and cautiously return, and sometimes we lose them forever.

It’s one thing to play with sarcasm, to confront or criticize ideas and ideologies, but the moment those words devolve from criticism into personal attacks and denigration, discourse is over, and someone is hurt.

We’re all people, folks, even on the Internet. For Fuck’s sake, be good to each other.

Bringing old arcade games back to life

September 20th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on August 8, 2013

I stood before the cabinet, tapping buttons, idly moving the grimy joystick from side to side, frowning at the faded artwork and cigarette-burned control panel. The cabinet had spent time outdoors, maybe in a shed, with water damage along the bottom and busted up corners. The weathered back door sat off to the side, revealing a rat’s nest of wire (along with what might have been an actual rat’s nest) and dust-covered main boards. I slid in a quarter. A loose connection somewhere echoed noisily in the speakers as the game’s theme began to play, misaligned text on the screen inviting me to have a go. The machine was a mess, but it worked.

“Will ya take three hundred?”

This week! Bring an old arcade game to life for fun and profit!

tron

In the summer of 2008, I restored TRON. I’d been a fan of the game and franchise since I was young, and one of my earliest gaming memories was wandering into the Disneyland Starcade as a child and seeing a row of brand new TRON arcade machines lined up along a wall, each one topped with a second monitor so that spectators could watch from the crowd. The game itself was attractive (four different games, all in one machine!) but what really captured me was the electronic music and the soft neon glow of the artwork, panels, and joystick. I was in awe.

Who knew that roughly 25 years later I’d have one sitting in my garage. It was in rough shape, sure, but it was TRON, and I was going to make it new again. I began the teardown in earnest, stripping down the cabinet while scouring forums and manuals, learning just enough to continue as I moved from task to task. And as I worked, I realized, this was a hell of a lot of fun.

The following summer, I tackled a pinball machine. Then a Neo-Geo cabinet. Then a Missile Command. Up next, pending time and workspace: a pair of mid 1980’s era Japanese arcade cabinets, short and squat and built like washing machines.

Look, you’ve read this far, you’ve gotta be at least a little bit driven by nostalgia, right? Is there an arcade game in your past that you remember fondly? Ever considered yourself the tinkering sort? Buy an old arcade cabinet. Park your car in the driveway for a couple months and dedicate the garage space to a restoration project. These things are only getting older, and it’s going to be up to the collectors and restorers to ensure they stick around.

Let me help you get started.

First off, be patient. So you’ve decided that yes, you’re going to try this. Awesome, but don’t just buy the first machine that pops up on Craigslist. Pricing for arcade games is all over the place, and unless you’re looking at an incredibly rare machine, don’t pay over a couple hundred dollars for a game that you plan to overhaul.

Don’t do this to make money. With the cost of parts and the time involved, the last thing you should expect to do is restore a game and sell it for profit.

Once you’ve got the machine, label everything. If you’re undertaking a ground-up restoration, the first thing you’ll want to do is take the cabinet apart. Don’t assume that you’ll remember anything about how it goes back together, because chances are you won’t. Have plenty of painter’s tape (label those pieces!), baggies, and Sharpies on hand. Take photographs. Start by photographing the cabinet and internals before removing a single screw, just to have a reference point. Photograph all plugs, connectors, and anything else that comes apart.

Tools-wise, you can pretty much dismantle a cabinet with a couple of screwdrivers and a socket set. A wire crimper and multimeter will be handy when you’re putting everything back together. If you are repainting, Citristrip is your friend. Invest in a decent sander, and paint with oil-based paints. If you need to repair damaged corners or other parts of the cabinet, use Bondo, it’ll outlast wood filler.

Take advantage of the community! Plenty of online discussion boards are out there. Some of the best for the budding restorer include the arcade-museum.com forums and the Build Your Own Arcade Controls community at forum.arcadecontrols.com. Both will lead you to useful background information, discussions, and even sources for cabinet parts and reproduction artwork.

Above all, don’t be intimidated. With all the available resources online, restoring an arcade cabinet is like building a model; you’ll find walkthroughs and guides for almost everything. The pleasure of restoration is that it forces you to learn a little bit about a lot of skills: a little bit of woodworking, a little bit of painting, a little bit of electronics. Dive in, have fun, and send me photos when you’re done.